By: Lyn Townsend
Beta Read by Gemini
Written for PetFly by David Thoreau
Security guard Mike Collins made his way slowly through the darkened interior of Gershwin’s Furniture Warehouse. Pausing occasionally to swing his flashlight around in a wide arc as he had been taught, he tried to keep his mind on his mundane job. When he’d first taken the position, he’d been as excited as a little kid. He’d always wanted to be a cop and now he’d be doing the real thing, almost. Three months in and he was bored silly. His flashlight beam played over a child’s bed and he sighed remembering how he’d promised his son, Billy, one just like it, designed like a racing car. Just as soon as I get my business diploma from night school, he’d told him. It all cost money and to that end, the security job was a godsend.
A sound from behind caught his wandering attention and he spun on his heel, lifting his flashlight so it shone on the area he’d just walked through. The beam caught the reflection of glass and then Mike saw the red liquid within. Curious but cautious he walked toward it with slow, measured steps. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye but a blow smashed into his skull before he had time to react. His unconscious body thumped heavily to the concrete floor.
His assailant stepped over his unmoving form and made his way quickly out of the dark warehouse. Behind him, there was a muffled whump of sound, then a bright flare as the fuel in one of the several jars placed around the warehouse interior ignited. Within seconds, the warehouse was ablaze and burning furiously.
Jim Ellison muttered a quiet curse to himself as his partner, Blair Sandburg, squinted shortsightedly out the front windshield of the truck into the gathering darkness.
"Look, Sandburg, I've been working all day and all night. I'm tired, and I'm hungry. At 3:00 a.m., I just want to stop at the first place that's open."
Blair swiveled in his seat to look at the detective. "Jim, trust me, it'll be worth it. Tony's 24-Hour Grill's got some of the best food you will ever taste."
"If we ever get there," Jim complained.
"It's right around here somewhere," Blair said, looking searchingly now through the passenger window.
Jim sighed again. "You've been saying that for 20 minutes."
Blair shrugged, not looking the least bit apologetic. Something tickled at the edge of Jim's senses, a faint odor that caused his nostrils to twitch. Quickly, he rolled down his window. "Do you smell that?"
Blair looked at him, somewhat distracted by his continuing search. "What?"
Blair grinned triumphantly. "Ah, that's Tony's Grill. I told you it was on this street!"
Jim shook his head, his features creasing into a worried frown. "No, no, no. Whatever's burning, it's cooking a lot more than food."
Blair yelped in surprise and grabbed hold of the dash with an iron grip as Jim turned the steering wheel sharply, then stamped his foot onto the accelerator, sending the vehicle careening in a gyrating path in the opposite direction.
Jim pulled the truck to a halt outside a large warehouse that was already engulfed in flames. He dialed up his hearing as both men climbed from the vehicle, his eyes having already noted the security car parked at one side of the building. The unmistakable thump of a heartbeat came to him, accompanied by a low groan of pain. He thrust his cell phone into Blair's hands. "There's somebody inside that warehouse."
Standing as close as he was to his partner with his hearing still on maximum, Jim couldn't mistake the sudden increase in Blair's heart rate. The detective turned to look at him and in the orange glare of the fire, Blair looked suddenly pale.
The anthropologist licked his lips. "Shouldn't we wait for the fire department?"
Jim headed in the direction of the burning warehouse at a trot. "There's no time," he threw over his shoulder. "Call for help."
Blair seemed to hesitate a moment, then nodded. Satisfied his partner would do as he asked, Jim ran toward the warehouse entrance. He could hear Blair faintly over the roar of the flames.
"We got a fire at Gershwin's Furniture warehouse. Third and Mission. There may be somebody trapped inside."
Jim tried to open the door but after struggling for several long seconds to no avail, he moved to a side window. Covering his arm with an old cloth he found lying on the ground, he smashed the window and after clearing away as much of the shattered glass as he could, he climbed over the sill. Instantly, he dialed down his sense of smell and taste as acrid fumes found their way to his mouth and nasal passages causing them to sting and burn. His eyes were already beginning to water but he resolutely ignored it and made his way further inside the vast warehouse. He flinched automatically as his enhanced hearing picked up the rumbling of an explosion. Standing still for a moment, trying to get his bearings, he heard a low moan of pain and the sound of someone moving.
Ahead he saw the crumpled body of a man in uniform. Jim ran to the man's side and hoisted the limp form over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. There would be time for resuscitative and first aid measures outside. He could already hear the guard wheezing softly as Jim got to his feet and headed back toward the warehouse exit.
A loud explosion directly behind him startled the detective and he glanced around quickly, scrunching his eyes shut at the bright white flame that flared against his eyeballs. Staggering toward the locked door, Jim fumbled with it briefly before kicking it open and stumbling into the chill night air.
Blair was at the door, his face still pale, and his eyes wide and too bright. The grad student ran forward and helped to lower the still-groggy security guard from Jim's shoulders. Jim and Blair supported the almost unconscious man between them as they ran toward the truck.
"Run!" Jim ordered, unsure if further explosions might go off at any moment. They made it to the truck and lowered their burden down beside them as the ground shook and something inside the warehouse burst into flame.
Jim lowered his head to his shaking forearms and coughed, trying to expel the noxious fumes from his lungs and throat.
Blair looked up from where he knelt beside the guard, two fingers pressed against the man's carotid artery. "You okay?"
Jim could only nod mutely, his throat still on fire.
In the gray dawn of a dismal day, Jim and Blair stood next to a Cascade Fire Department truck and surveyed the smoking wreckage of the furniture warehouse. The detective signed his name at the bottom of the incident report he had been handed by a young firefighter, then gave it back nodding his thanks. He looked up as a fireman with captain's stripes adorning the sleeves of his turnout coat approached them.
"Lucky thing for that guard when you came along. One of my guys tells me you're a cop."
Jim nodded his head and held out a hand. "Yeah. Jim Ellison, Major Crimes. This is Blair Sandburg."
Blair waved a greeting. "How you doing?"
"Dan Matson." The captain shook their hands, then pulled off his helmet and ruffled his sweat-damp blond hair.
Blair looked over at the smoking remains, watching the fire fighters who picked their way through the skeleton of the warehouse, searching the debris for clues. "Well, it didn't seem like your hoses did much good."
"Yeah, that was one hot fire," Matson agreed. "We could barely contain it."
"I've seen a lot of fires before, but this one was pure white," Jim put in thoughtfully.
"Did you say 'white'?"
All three men's attention was pulled away from the mopping up operations at the voice. A petite young woman with tangled dark hair cascading over her shoulders walked quickly over to them. She was dressed in the yellow pants of the fire brigade, topped with a grubby tee shirt. Her pretty, ash-smudged face looked quizzically up at Jim.
Jim nodded. "That's right."
The woman looked thoughtful. "What about the center of the fire? What color was it?"
Jim shook his head in puzzlement. "Kind of...blue."
The woman sighed and cursed softly under her breath. "Oh, I knew it. He's back."
Matson leaned into her. "Kinda jumping the gun, Deb?"
Debra fixed Matson with an impatient glare. "Oh, I already know how it'll go down," she grumbled. "No pour pattern, no trace of any common accelerant." She held up a small object. "And look at this. It's a piece of the concrete floor. That fire became so hot it melted it into glass." Her attention drifted back to Jim. "Tell me something, hero? How'd you just happen to be in the vicinity?"
Jim shrugged, not prepared to offer up too much information until he was sure what the woman was after. If there had been a crime committed, it was his investigation. "We were driving around, looking for a place to eat."
"Is that your truck over there?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. That's right."
Debra studied him carefully. "Any objection if I have a look inside?"
"He's a cop, Deb," Matson interrupted hurriedly.
Jim held up a hand. "That's all right. Knock yourself out."
Debra gave a half-smile. "Thank you." She walked off toward Jim's vehicle.
Blair looked at Matson, a puzzled frown on his face. "What was that about?"
Jim supplied the information. "Debra Reeves. She's an arson investigator."
Blair stared at Jim, looking a little surprised at his partner's words. "You know her?"
Jim nodded. "I've seen her working out at the gym a couple times. She's cute in a pit bull sort of way."
"Oh, she has the tendency to rub people the wrong way," Matson snorted. "But she's very good at her job," he added.
"What's she want with the truck?" Blair asked.
"When you're an arson investigator, everybody is a suspect," Matson replied.
Jim straightened from where he'd been leaning against the fire truck. "All right, let's go, Chief."
Blair looked at his partner carefully as they walked into the Major Crimes bullpen the following morning. Jim was still tending to unconsciously rub his chest and Blair couldn't help but be concerned that the noxious fumes from the night before at the fire had caused some damage to the sentinel's sensitive airways. Finally he spoke up. "Your lungs still hurt from last night?"
Jim sighed and nodded and sent a hand up to rub at his eyes. "My lungs, my eyes, and nose. I had a similar experience in the military when they were testing napalm."
"You think there's chemicals in that building?" Blair asked, remembering the comments that the fire investigator had brought up regarding the lack of accelerants.
"I'm just saying the way my senses feel that it's possible," Jim answered. Both men looked toward the inner office as their captain pushed open his door and called to Jim.
"Can I see you a minute, please?"
Jim nodded and then stood back to allow Blair to lead the way, shutting the door behind them. Blair recognized Debra Reeves from the warehouse earlier that morning and watched as Jim fixed her with a steely glare as she stood and faced them.
Simon broke the uneasy silence. "I think you two know Inspector Reeves."
Jim didn't acknowledge his captain's introduction, focusing his displeasure on the fire investigator instead. "You here to arrest me, Inspector?"
Debra shook her head and smiled slightly. "Just doing my job, Detective."
Simon sat down at his desk and drew everyone's attention to him with a commanding tap on the table. "I'm putting you in charge of the criminal investigation for last night's fire, Jim. Looks like we're dealing with a serial arsonist here. If we're right, we've already had two fatalities. Plus the guard from last night is still in critical condition."
"This is the fifth super-hot fire in the northwest in the last two years," Debra added.
"What's the connection?" Jim asked.
Debra looked up from the report in her hand. "Most fires burn around 1,500 Fahrenheit. Whoever's doing these fires is using something a lot hotter -- it's reaching close to 5,000 degrees. The only explanation is an HTA."
Blair cocked his head in puzzlement. "What's an 'HTA'?"
"High temperature accelerant," Jim informed the young man.
"Inspector Reeves thinks we're dealing with a highly skilled professional with a lot of technical knowledge," Simon added.
Blair's eyes opened wide. "What, like an arsonist for hire?"
Debra nodded in agreement. "All the fires were industrial warehouses with big-time insurance payoffs, right? On the other hand, I don't think this is just about money. This guy loves to make things burn. He's getting more daring. These fires are getting closer together."
"You said each warehouse had a big payoff. How much was last night's?" Jim asked the investigator.
"Gershwin Furniture stands to make two million in insurance."
"I'd say that's a good place to start," Jim said. He stood and motioned for Blair to follow him before nodding to Simon. "Sir."
Jim stopped at the captain's summons. "Captain? Is there something else?"
Simon looked a little discomfited. "You'll be working with Inspector Reeves on this case."
Simon shrugged weakly. "Mayor's idea."
Jim glared at Blair as the anthropologist stifled a chuckle. His laughter quickly
disappearing, Blair led the way out of the office. Debra stood and looked at Jim.
"Shall we?" she suggested.
Jim didn't smile. "Yeah," the detective agreed.
Lou Gershwin ushered Jim, Blair and Debra Reeves through the vast and crowded interior of his furniture warehouse store. "Please, come in. I'm always happy to help out the authorities in any way I can," he said with a kindly smile.
"I feel like we're old friends, Mr. Gershwin," Blair told the old man with a somewhat awestruck expression on his face.
Gershwin's smile grew impossibly wider. "A 'Couch King Movie' fan."
"Yeah. Ever since I was able to stay up past my bedtime."
Gershwin laughed and turned his attention to Jim as he stopped them at the service counter. "And you, Detective, you look familiar to me." He thought a moment then raised a triumphant finger. "The police athletic league fund-raiser two years ago. We shared a table. You were with your wife, a very attractive brunette. A police, um...a police technician, as I recall," he finished with satisfaction.
Jim was impressed. "That's quite a memory you have."
Gershwin shrugged it off. "I have a photographic memory. How is your wife?"
Jim felt a little embarrassed and Blair's grin got bigger. "Well, now that she's divorced me and moved to San Francisco, just fine," the detective finally said.
"Oh, wow. I've been married four times. My view is, I'm going to keep doing it until I get it right," the old man laughed.
Debra took a step forward, her face stern. "Excuse me. I'd like to ask a few questions. Mr. Gershwin, is it true that your company lost over half a million dollars last quarter?"
"Well, just a temporary slump. The furniture business is cyclical. Our sales have been up significantly in the last three months," he explained.
"I see," Debra paused a moment then went on. "Is that why you increased your fire insurance twice in the last year?"
"I increased my insurance because -- as you should be aware -- we had a large fire just three blocks from here."
Debra nodded. "Right. That was eight months ago. You increased your insurance the first time ten months ago."
Gershwin was beginning to look annoyed. "So what?" he asked, raising a defiant chin.
Jim interrupted before Reeves could put the old man totally offside and ruin any chance at all of cooperation. "Debra..." he began.
Debra simply glared at him and pushed on. "Mr. Gershwin, are you aware that arson for profit is a serious offense?"
"Are you accusing me of a crime?" Gershwin blustered, his cheerful face now set into a grim mask.
"There is a security guard at County General in critical condition. If he dies, you will be involved in a murder investigation. So if I were you, I'd come clean as soon as possible while you can still cut a deal," the woman said.
Gershwin gaped at them. "This is unbelievable," he said. "You... you come into my store..."
Jim stepped forward, one hand raised to warn the investigator off. "Maybe we ought to just settle down," he said in a placating manner, giving Debra a warning look.
Gershwin pointed at the exit. "I think you ought to just get the hell out of my store."
Jim sighed. Reeves had achieved the exact opposite of what he'd been after. Gershwin was going to clam up tight and they'd be back where they started. "Mr. Gershwin..."
"Now!" Gershwin ordered imperiously.
"Very good, sir." Jim ushered Debra out in front of him.
Debra nodded at Gershwin. "Good day."
Blair smiled weakly as he trailed after Jim and Debra. "I'm still a huge fan," he whispered.
Jim caught hold of Debra once they were outside the door before she could stalk off. "Call me oversensitive, but don't you think it's bit premature to slap him with a felony accusation?" he demanded.
Debra shook off his hand. "I was trying to get information, not become his best friend," she replied frostily.
"The idea here is to get people to trust you," Blair said.
The investigator stared at him for a moment as though she'd forgotten who he was. "Well, I find it works better to keep them off-balance."
"The only thing that's off-balance here is your approach," Jim put in.
Debra nodded slowly. "I misjudged him, okay?"
Jim took the apology at face value and backed off a little. "Well, at least we agree on one thing." He looked up as an older man approached them and called to Reeves.
Debra looked around and her stern expression melted immediately. "Dad! What are you doing here?"
Reeves shrugged. "I'm looking for a new sofa. It's time we got rid of that old monstrosity in the living room." He favored Jim and Blair with a smile. "Pardon my daughter's manners. Mitch Reeves," he said, holding out his hand.
Jim shook it. "Jim Ellison, Cascade P.D."
Blair smiled at the man and took his proffered hand. "How you doing? Blair Sandburg."
"You must be here about that warehouse fire. Was it arson?" he asked.
"Dad, you know we can't talk about an ongoing investigation," Debra cautioned him.
Reeves shook his head and laid a gentle hand on Debra's shoulder. "My own daughter, we were in the same department, yet she won't tell me a thing. Now how else am I supposed to get my thrills?"
"How long were you a fireman?" Blair asked.
"Twenty-one years," Mitch replied with some pride. "Then I got bit. But I could tell you some stories."
"Dad, we're a little busy right now," Debra said apologetically.
Reeves held up his hands and grinned. "Okay, okay. No stories. Well, I'm off to buy a couch." He turned to Jim and Blair. "Nice to meet you guys. See you around."
"Happy shopping," Jim answered.
Debra kissed her father's cheek. "See you later."
"Well, it seems your dad's got some manners," Jim commented dryly and grinned when Debra pulled a face.
"I'm going to check in at the office. I'll hook up with you guys later," she said.
"Sure. Okay. Let's get back to work, Chief."
Blair looked at Jim inquisitively. "Next stop?"
Jim patted his shoulder as they walked to the truck. "Next stop, Forensics."
Jim led the way into the forensics lab and greeted the attractive dark-haired technician who stood on the opposite side of the laboratory table. "Hey, Sam."
"Jim!" Samantha looked up and returned Jim's smile with a welcoming one of her own.
Jim turned to Blair, nudging him forward when it seemed his partner wanted to stay close to his side. "This is Blair Sandburg. He's a consultant to the department."
Sam's smile faded abruptly as she stared at Blair and nodded. "Yes, we've met."
"Sam and I know each other socially," Blair explained at Jim's curious look. The anthropologist sidled around so that he stood next to Jim and waved Samantha a hello.
Sam looked down and concentrated on her work as she spoke. "Yeah, at least we did until Blair stood me up at a sushi restaurant."
"I got the dates mixed up," Blair protested.
Sam looked up quickly and squared her jaw, her dark eyes glinting. "That's what happens when you overbook," she said flatly.
"It was a mistake," Blair said. He sighed as though he realized that he was fighting a losing battle. "I told you I was sorry."
"Not sorry enough," Sam retorted.
Jim winced at the venom that oozed from the words. "Ouch." He changed the subject quickly, noticing Blair's acute unease with the situation. "Sam, any idea what this mystery accelerant is that we're looking for?"
"Well, if pumping water on the blaze made it worse, it sounds like we're looking for an oxidizer which is a chemical that creates its own oxygen," the technician explained, giving Blair another frosty look before turning her attention back to Jim. She picked up a beaker and poured a green liquid from a glass bottle into it.
"Is that possible?" Jim asked.
Sam smiled at both men and held the beaker out to Blair. "Let's do a little experiment. Blair? Would you please put that in the sink?" She smiled sweetly at him.
Blair took the jar rather gingerly then after giving Jim a minute puzzled shrug, nodded. He carried the beaker around to the far end of the counter and placed it in the sink. Jim watched curiously, wondering what Samantha had in mind. The next few seconds gave him the answer.
The technician's attention was focused firmly on Blair. "Okay. Now put some water from the tap on it."
Blair nodded and turned on the faucet. The effect was instantaneous and frightening as the liquid in the beaker appeared to ignite and a flash of flame spewed up into Blair's face. Blair reeled backward and his hands went up as though to shield himself. Jim felt his stomach lurch in shock. Samantha smirked, as Blair's complexion suddenly became ashen. The anthropologist stared at Samantha but instead of anger, Jim saw fear and hurt in his pale features.
"Are you trying to kill me? You did that on purpose." Blair leaned forward suddenly, bracing his hands on the counter, his head hanging down, as he appeared to fight to catch his breath.
Sam shrugged. "Oh, it was just a harmless chemical reaction -- kind of like your feelings for me."
Jim glared at her then moved around to his partner. "You okay, Chief?"
It took a moment but Blair finally nodded and pointed to the door. "How about you handle this on your own, Jim? I'll, uh, I'll meet you outside."
Jim nodded and patted Blair's shoulder, not surprised to feel a slight tremble still present. It had shaken him up and he hadn't even been on the receiving end. He watched Blair leave the lab without a backward glance at Samantha. Concerned by how pale Blair had looked, Jim dialed up his hearing and listened to the other man's pounding heartbeat. Samantha's little game of revenge had seriously spooked the anthropologist. He continued to monitor Blair as he listened to the grad student pace and mutter to himself in the corridor outside.
The detective pulled himself back to the situation at hand with some difficulty and turned to stare at Samantha, forgetting for a moment why he was there. "Oh, right. So, what you're saying is that the more water the firemen put on the fire the hotter it got?"
Sam nodded. "Exactly. Instead of putting it out, it was feeding it. But the problem is coming up with something that burns at the temperature you're talking about. 5,000 degrees is one intense fire."
"You know, while it was burning, I smelled something that reminded me of napalm. It wasn't the same, but it was similar," Jim said thoughtfully.
"Huh. Just give me a couple days to do some research."
Jim looked at the door, anxious to check on Sandburg. "Is there anything else you got while we're at it?"
"Well, unfortunately there wasn't much left of the warehouse to examine, but we found this right outside on the pavement." Sam picked up a small evidence bag and handed it to him. "It seems to be some kind of wax material."
Jim took the small lump out of the bag and examined it curiously. He held it up to the light, then brought it to his nose and sniffed it.
"It could have been blown out by one of the explosions. We're still doing some tests to determine what it is," Sam said.
Jim smiled. "This is Mr. Zog's Sex Wax."
Samantha gaped. "Sex Wax?"
Jim colored slightly in embarrassment even as he spoke. "It's what surfers use to coat their boards for traction in the water. This is coconut-scented."
Sam grinned at him. "Thanks. You just saved me a couple days' worth of work."
Jim nodded and headed for the door. "Anything I can do to help. Call me when you've confirmed that, would you? Nice work." He pushed the door open and saw immediately that he would not need to look far for his partner. Blair stood directly opposite the lab, though he did not appear to notice Jim. His attention in fact seemed to be focused on the wall. "Let's go, Chief."
Blair didn't respond and Jim walked over and laid a hand on the other man's shoulder. He was startled when the anthropologist jumped and sucked in a gasp of air. The detective leaned forward to check out Blair's face. "Hey, you okay there, Chief? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Blair's features were still drawn and pale and sweat beaded his brow. Vacant blue eyes looked up at Jim and for a moment, the detective thought he saw a frightened, haunted expression pass over Blair's face. Then the anthropologist blinked and it was gone. He smiled slowly at Jim. "Sorry, man, just thinking."
Jim slapped him on the shoulder. "Let's get out of here, huh?"
Blair nodded and pushed himself off the wall. "Yeah, I'm coming."
"So, what's the deal with you and Samantha?" Jim asked, trying to sound
Blair looked quickly at him. "I didn't stand her up, man. I swear. I just got the dates confused."
"Well, you must have pissed her off pretty badly, Sandburg. She wanted to blow your face off."
"Yeah, I know." Blair was quiet for a moment, then he shrugged philosophically. "At least she's got it out of her system. Pity the next guy who screws up a date with her."
Jim grinned. "So you're not going to ask her out again?"
Blair shuddered theatrically. "No way. Not unless I can get some life insurance first."